If elections come, can freebies be far behind?
Going by the announcements being made by all political parties ahead of upcoming Assembly polls in three key states, it would seem not.
In Rajasthan, the BJP has come up with a neat scheme — the government will first distribute free smartphones among voters, and then use them for digital advertisements of their other initiatives.
The plan is nicely tiered: the government will first distribute Rs 500 to people for buying a smartphone (special arrangements have been made for the cheaper phones), and those who buy the phone will get another Rs 500 for internet connections.
“We have ensured that poor people on touch of a button can know about the government’s welfare schemes,” Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has said.
This is sabka sath, sabka vikas: in one stroke, the Centre’s Digital India initiative will be promoted, the state’s schemes will get more publicity, and voters will get a smartphone.
Not to be outdone, the Congress has come up with its own set of goodies.
Along with promises of jobs, it offers a backup plan — a monthly allowance of Rs 3,500 to unemployed educated people.
Of course, there are questions to be raised over both schemes — what are “the poor” supposed to do once the first recharge of Rs 500 for the internet connection in their phones is over? Why is the Congress concerned only about the educated unemployed people?
However, neither party has time for such killjoy questions.
Dole politics has had its genesis and development in southern states, notably Tamil Nadu. However, now, freebies are flourishing across India, and their evolution has pointers to the growing aspirations of India.
Thus, from free rice and cooking oil, we have come to free laptops and 1GB Internet connections.
Also, with everyone now part of the game, political parties are straining their brains to come up with new things to give away. Thus, apart from the usual atta daal, in Punjab, the Congress in 2017 offered subsidised ghee and sugar.
The Congress had a lot to contend against: the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal government had been comprehensive — it had announced everything from gymnasiums in towns and villages to free sports kits to steel utensils to free trips to religious shrines.
In Karnataka, which saw elections earlier this year, Bengaluru voters received steel utensils, tiffin boxes, copper lamps, pencil box and a booklet on the BJP, according to a report in The Hindu. All of these were packed in huge boxes with a picture of the sitting MLA, Satish Reddy.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party had distributed laptops to students amid great fanfare. However, the recipients were reportedly told that if they changed the wallpaper — which was an image of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav — the laptops might not work. The students, however, were willing to take the risk, and soon found the threat was unfounded.
Another step in the evolution of freebie politics is their customisation. Thus, along with subsidised grains, that benefit every section of the population, the BJP in Karnataka announced gender-specific benefits — free sanitary napkins for the underprivileged, one rupee-napkins for other women, free smartphones and 3-gm gold thalis (mangalsutras) for women from BPL families.
Is announcing sops wrong? Technically, no. Do they queer the pitch in favour of richer parties and candidates ahead of elections and ensure wastage of public money after the elections? Very much yes.
Also, a distinction needs to be made, as the Supreme Court has said, between “welfare goods” — free grains, cooking oil, loan waivers — and “consumer goods” — laptops, TVs, smartphones.
The Election Commission has in the past held meetings with political parties to frame guidelines to regulate freebies. However, predictably, most parties opposed the move.
Till such guidelines emerge, elections will continue to see a free flow of freebies.